Why We Need to Stop Using the Term “Disrupt”

We hear it frequently, we bandy about the term casually, and it’s been used so much more often now that there’s a pretty significant event named after it.

“Disrupt.”

“Disruptive Innovation.”

“Disruptive Tech.”

I understand it — there’s a need to shake up the way we’re doing things, and we’re trying to find language that’s powerful enough to articulate that kind of movement. Right?

WRONG. This is so, so wrong. Perhaps it’s the English major in me that finds buzzwords like this so offensive, or perhaps it’s because I just really, really, really care about words.

But let’s all of us agree to stop using the term “disrupt.” Today. Because it’s just plain incorrect.

It was kind of cool for awhile. A little shocking, maybe — like seeing the first Harlem Shake video.

But just like any other trend, it’s been played out. It’s gotten out of control, really, and we need to start thinking about what we’re really doing here when we describe something as “disruptive.”

When people use the term “disruptive” to talk about a product, what they’re actually trying to communicate is the potential that the technology has for changing outdated methods or systems. Except they’re failing at communicating that. 

Just last week, in this Forbes article, some of the issues seen in health care were discussed, along with how technology will disrupt that system.

“Point-of-care,” or POC, technology has seen vast amounts of progress, especially in the last few years, and the article goes on to describe just what kinds of improvements are being made in health care because of POC tech, and what further progress we’ll likely see.

Google isn’t the only player trying to disrupt the diabetes-monitoring business.  Microchips too, a Massachusetts based startup, is developing an implantable biochemical sensor to monitor blood-glucose levels.  Both Google and Microchips could collect data continuously and inform the patient or his or her caregiver or physician of diabetic emergencies.

What we’re actually talking about here is the huge amount of opportunity there is for this kind of technology to seriously impact and improve how individuals get the care they need.

And, folks, that isn’t disruptive AT ALL.

No — that’s called “fulfilling a need,” or “providing a solution.”

That’s what I would call the opposite of disruptive.

I totally understand using memes or trends, so that you’re able to relate to your audience and participate in the same conversations that they are.

But if you need a trendy buzzword to gain traction around your new product or platform, to make your pitch more interesting, or to get people to pay attention — you’re probably going to fizzle out, just like the “disruptive” trend will.

Instead, let’s talk about the lives we’re improving, how we’re helping others with the technology we’re creating. Let’s talk about all of the opportunities we’re creating.

And let’s use the right words to do that.

Rachel Winstead
winstead.rachel@gmail.com

Rachel is a freelance writer and works at Soap Hope in downtown Dallas. She hates the term "disrupt," tweets about startups, and appreciates a well-crafted hashtag.

14 Comments
  • Chirag
    Posted at 11:18h, 29 September

    #disruptDISRUPT

  • Arlo Gilbert
    Posted at 12:42h, 29 September

    In your example, sure disrupt is the wrong term. What would you suggest is an alternative to a technology that has the potential to change an industry and leap ahead of entrenched players? The iPhone ______ed the mobile phone industry. Change hardly seems to carry the weight. I changed a diaper, I changed cell phone providers, I changed the mobile phone industry forever…. Seems like a word is needed, so what word do you suggest?

  • Rachel Gilliam
    Posted at 12:54h, 29 September

    This is the beauty of the English language. That we can pick words to describe exactly what we mean. Something like Uber drastically changed the taxi cab industry, and I think in some situations it’s okay to use disrupt.

    But setting out to disrupt — planning on disruption or pitching your app using these terms — is incorrect.

    The iPhone paved the way for more opportunity. It opened doors for more technology. Old systems died out because of it, but I guess I just consider that evolution.

    I think it’s time for the trend to die, which is really my main point. Because there are better words to describe what you’re doing, and because buzzwords are just fluff.

  • Arlo Gilbert
    Posted at 13:11h, 29 September

    Using lots of words to describe something = Awesome when the format is appropriate
    Brevity & clarity via understood buzz words = Awesome when the format is appropriate

    So I agree with you in the sense that if you have the luxury of time or a long form to explain a topic then using buzzwords is pointless

    In the scope of a 10 second pitch to a billionaire or a 140 character twitter announcement one doesn’t have the luxury of verbosity. Perhaps still buzz words are so last year but short form explanations are an art form of their own imho. The haiku of tech blogging perhaps 🙂

  • Rachel Gilliam
    Posted at 13:14h, 29 September

    “Haiku of tech blogging” — brilliant! 😀

    Buzzwords just seem lazy to me, when you boil it down. And I have higher hopes for us humans. 🙂

  • ReferMe
    Posted at 14:54h, 29 September

    I love this post!!!

  • Rachel Gilliam
    Posted at 15:10h, 29 September

    Well, we love YOU. Thanks for reading!

  • Compliance Management Software
    Posted at 18:09h, 29 September

    Most people don’t truly understand what the term “disruptive innovation” means. To understand the term you have to listen to Clayton Christensen. http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/

    Most innovations are just taking an existing idea and improving it.

  • Oren Salomon
    Posted at 18:19h, 29 September

    Couldn’t disagree more.

    It’s a succinct word to describe what’s going on.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with disruptive in this usage and it’s very apt.

    It’s referring to the disruption of the current market offerings and value propositions of competitors.

    Any elaborate ecosystem has multiple players, often with competing interests. What’s a win for some will often be a loss for others.

    It’s not just the perspective of consumers that need to be taken into account for the usage of this term as your article suggests.

    And if you’re going to insist we stop using it, what term do you suggest replace it?

  • Rachel Gilliam
    Posted at 18:41h, 29 September

    Thanks for contributing, Oren!! My comments are on our Facebook discussion, for anyone wanting to follow. https://www.facebook.com/rachel.t.gilliam/posts/663948245850

  • Ryan R
    Posted at 19:40h, 29 September

    At a minimum, this word is overused and should not be used for every startup with a little bit of traction. I feel the same way about the word ‘amazing’ when twenty-somethings describe moderately-decent things like french toast at a brunch (Of course, I’m not talking about any twenty-somethings on this site).

  • Rachel Gilliam
    Posted at 19:53h, 29 September

    I’m very, very guilty of beating the word “awesome” to death, Ryan. Not something I’m proud of.

    The point of this article is to get people to stop being lazy with buzzwords, especially if they’re talking about something they’re proud of and work hard for.

  • Mike
    Posted at 09:32h, 30 September

    I blame the prevalence of pitch coaching and the like. If all you have is vaporware, the product has to be described as disruptive or it wouldn’t garner any attention.

  • Richa Pande
    Posted at 15:10h, 01 October

    Buzzwords are the bitly equivalent to the communicated word. Tired? yes. Overused? absolutely. Misused? Mostly. Can be done away with? Not entirely. May I suggest a night guard to deal with the TMJ accompanying the gritting of teeth? 🙂 I’m on your side, I feel your pain.